Information access, the Ugandan way

During my interaction with different people, I gathered that there are two ways of accessing data in Uganda- note that there could be/will be more ways.

1. The ATI act:

The Access To Information (ATI) act of 2005 declares that “Every citizen has a right of access to information and records in the possession of the State or any public body, except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to the privacy of any other person”. Recently, on Open Data Day, I had a conversation with a Ugandan journalist who is already using the ATI act as a tool to get his government to account to him, in terms of good governance and transparency- he is exercising his right as a citizen, to access of information. So what happens in the government bureau corridors when the ATI act gets into action?

  • For starters, you need information request forms (a template for information access) from the government ministry that houses the information you need. These are hard copy forms and are 3 leaflets long.

  • Next step is to fill the paper form specifying your address, specifics of the information you need and when you need it.

How does one know government has or does not have this information?(this will be a discussion for another day I guess)

  • Drop the request form at the information unit of the respective government department then wait for 21 days within which your request is either granted or rejected.
Image Credit: HIM

Image Credit: HIM

If your information request is rejected, it may just end up in litigation, so your dance with government just started! However, the state has every right to reject request for information that might jeopardize her security- in that case, you got no option but to rest your case.

My journalist friend just sued government because his rights as a citizen of this country was denied- his request for information was not granted within 21 days despite part of the act reading thus “ATI gives any citizen the right of access to information and records in the possession of the state or any public body, except information that may prejudice the security of the state.” …. Probably in the eyes of government his request was not in favor of national security.

“ATI act came into place in 2005…”

On the flip side, my journalist friend has had several of his access to information requests granted- thumbs up to my government.

I was curious to find out what his motivation for information request was, so I ventured with this question: What will you do with the information now that you have it? His response, “the power of the media cannot be ignored; we provide news for the public and we’ll use this information to follow how governance issues are being handled in this country”. Fair point!

I am not a journalist, but as someone who identifies more with the technical data issues, I could request for information for the sole purpose of doing data quality checks for the many datasets hosted on data.ug.

It’s also nice to note that access to information may not be limited to only journalists or technical data people like I mention above, there are just so many ways this information could be used.

Assuming Uganda had a robust digital information infrastructure, where for example information requests can be made online and the response is received online (all this on my wish-list), this means government would probably have a clearer picture of the country’s economic status and so would the citizens. In addition to the wish-list would be extra infrastructure that generates aggregates of information from all the different government ministries for decision support for national policy experts and decision makers, besides according to NITA, Uganda’s vision for ICT development is to see “A Uganda where national development, especially human development and good governance, are sustainably enhanced, promoted and accelerated by efficient application and use of ICT, including timely access to information.”

Well, the latter would definitely use deeper systems analysis requirements techniques- it’s not as easy as it seems.

It’s nice to meet enthusiastic people! My journalist friend is planning to run a project in the rural communities of Uganda to share on how powerful, a legal tool like the ATI act could turn out. I presume only 1/10 people in the rural communities of Uganda know about how much power they could wield with this act!

2.) Data with a license?

In Uganda, it’s rare that you find data carrying a license. What this means is that a data user has to bear with the ambiguity surrounding the particular dataset. Sadly, this seems to be the universal notion surrounding the terms of use for data in Uganda, it’s not clear how far you can go with a dataset once you get hold of it. Most times, folk will use data however they want, share it, remix it- It almost feels like the data carries a creative commons share-alike license, until someone starts asking questions about licensing, then that’s when we start to see stars on the wall. Bittersweet! I daresay, 98% of Ugandan data does not carry a license.

Creative Commons, as one way of licensing

Uganda has a creative commons(CC) chapter right here in Kampala, salons are held occasionally, ideally after you leave a CC salon, you may strut you creative commons knowledge with more confidence. One really impressive thing going on here is the little booklets printed both in English and the local language, Luganda (possibly to reach a wider audience) that explains how this license works. In Uganda, since there are many chances that you run into case 2. above, the nice thing to do is suggest the use of a license or Creative Commons license to make things easier and streamlined. Though it’s not a guarantee that the suggestion will be received with open arms, just brace yourself for that but suggest anyway. So far it’s not stopped me from getting my hands on data that does not carry a license- ironical? Yeah, there lots of licensed data that gets in the wrong hands, but I would still rally behind licensed work!

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